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1 Corinthians 13:1-13 1

1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Background 2

Paul is writing 1 Corinthians in response to problems in the church in Corinth. Paul declares that love is the greatest power in a church (community) and Corinth seems to be lacking a lot of it. The very placement of 1 Corinthians 13 may be suggesting to us that Paul has ulterior motives. He places this poem in the middle of his discussion about spiritual achievements. In chapter 12, Paul discusses spiritual gifts and presents his famed analogy of the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27; 1 Corinthians 10:16; Romans 12:5). This body, the church, has many gifts and many functions. All of these makeup one church. Yet, even all of the many gifts and church functions are not enough to sustain the community in Corinth. Paul then takes a turn in direction and in chapter 13, talks about love as the hidden ingredient, the glue that holds the church and its many groups and functions together. He then resumes his discussion of the spiritual life in 1 Corinthians 14:1by saying saying “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.” 

Paul does not introduce this passage for the same reasons that it typically is used. As a marriage vow, it is used for reaffirming something already present between two people. Instead, he presents this passage as a way to introduce the Corinth community to a new behavior that is necessary if they are to survive the turmoil caused by differences and disagreements. The Corinthian church was not a homogenous body. Its members were not all of the same kind. When people gathered there, they did not have any uniformity of purpose. The people did not share similar lives, values, and experiences.

The Corinthian fellowship (koinonia, 1 Corinthians 1:9) transcended the conventional social boundaries of ethnicity, gender, age, rank, status, and life situations. There were married and unmarried men and women as well as widows and children among them (1 Corinthians 7:8, 14, 32-40). While most of its members were converted Gentiles (1 Corinthians 12:2). In the church of Corinth were Jews (1 Corinthians 1:23-24) who were rather powerful figures who served as former synagogue leaders, like Crispus (1 Corinthians 1:14; cf. Acts 18:8) and Sosthenes (1 Corinthians 1:1; cf. Acts 18:17). While most of its members, were from the lower classes of society (1 Corinthians 1:26), some were just the opposite. Erastus, for example, was the city treasurer of Corinth and Gaius had enough resources to support Paul and the whole church (1 Corinthians 1:14; cf. Romans 16:23). There were slaves and free people in the community (1 Corinthians 12:13) as well as people with different skill sets and gifts (1 Corinthians 12:28-30).

The diversity within the church of Corinth generated both benefits and challenges. Unfortunately, the diversity among the Corinthians dissolved into discord (1 Corinthians 1:10) and rivalry (1 Corinthians 3:4, 21-23). Members divided into contentious groups. They took sides with some saying they are of one teacher or another (1 Corinthians 1:12; 11:18-19). This was a community fragmented, rather than enriched, by their differences. Yet, Paul remained firm that this diversity is nonnegotiable. God has called this community to be diverse and to get along within it. Paul’s poetic love verses were not written to celebrate the unifying love already accomplished in the community.  It was more of a call to action. It was not a tribute to what is but an intervention to instruct them on what had not yet come to pass.

In Paul’s tribute to love, he starts out by naming human achievement as being temporal and limited (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, 8-12). Up until this point in the letter, much of Paul’s discussion is about speaking in tongues, prophesy, knowledge, and insight as ingredients of Christian worship and life. These are to be goals and achievements are necessary and desirable (1 Corinthians 12:27). In his love poem, Paul makes a decisive shift here, however, to diminish spiritual gifts. Paul says, tongues, prophesy, knowledge, miracles, servanthood to the point of death are important, but they still do not qualify as the “more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). Love is still the key.

Paul choses to insert love into 1 Corinthians  because it is the spiritual resource the Corinthians lacked most. Paul then goes on to describe “the work of love” in both positive and negative terms. On the positive side, Paul says love is: patient, kind, and selfless. It involves truth-telling, fortitude, constancy, and tolerance (1 Corinthians 13:4-5,7). In terms of what love “is not,” Paul says it is not self-seeking, short-tempered, and offensive. In other words, love does not hurt people.  To be a loving church will not damage their prospects for being an authentic church and community.

If one has love then they never cease to hope. Jesus believed that no man was hopeless. Love bears everything with triumphant fortitude. The Greek verb used here (hupomenein) is one of the great Greek words. It is generally translated to to mean “bear or to endure.” However,  what it really describes is not the spirit which can passively bear things, but the spirit which, in bearing them, can conquer them. It is not an attitude of resignation but an attitude filled with holy joy. Love can bear things, not merely with passive resignation, but with triumphant fortitude, because it knows that “a Father’s hand will never cause His child a needless tear.” When we think of the qualities of this love as Paul portrays them, we can being to see them in the life of Jesus Himself. Paul stresses love’s absolute permanency. When all the things in which men glory have passed away love will still stand. In one of the most wonderfully lyrical verses of scripture The Song of Solomon (SS 8:7) sings, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” The one unconquerable thing is love. That is one of the great reasons for believing in immortality. When love is entered into, there comes into life a relationship against which the assaults of time are helpless and which transcends death.

The love Paul is talking about here is not passive and fluffy either. It is a kind of love that is an up at dawn, feet on the ground, tools in hand, a working kind of love.  This love builds communities and nurtures positive social interactions. It does this not just in social networks (which many of us have come to prefer) but in the entire community, the entire church. (Note here: The Church of Corinth was a city church a community church). Paul’s declaration of love unifies people. Love becomes the way by which we talk to each other (1 Corinthians 1:5; 16:20), eat with one another (1 Corinthians 8:13; 10:27; 11:33-34), fellowship together (1 Corinthians 11:20), and affirm (support) all (1 Corinthians 16:15-16, 18). Love transcends our self-imposed caste systems and personal biases. It forms whole and holistic people, who are anchored in the well-being of others. Love will not let us down if we genuinely live in it together (1 Corinthians 16:14). As great as faith and hope are, love is still greater. Faith without love is cold, and hope without love is grim. Love is the fire which kindles faith and it is the light which turns hope into certainty.

Items for Discussion

  • How do you think that our society today is misunderstanding Paul’s kind of love?
  • How does our society today destroy one’s capacity to love as Paul is directing us to do?
  • How does love facilitate the survival of the young and the fulfilment of the old?
  • Do you believe this statement is true?  “Love is a constant of the human condition we are taught to not see” Why or why not?
  • Why do we misunderstand each other?
  • Paul talks about maturing from a child to a man.  Our society has defined maturing as (of an organism) becoming physically mature. What type of maturity do you think Paul was trying to get us to understand?
  • How would you explain to someone that love even transcends death?
  • With respect to discernment, how would you apply these verses to making decisions in life?

Discussion Challenge

  • How does a congregation facilitate Paul’s love even in times of COVID-19?

Notes:

  1. NIV New International Version Translations
  2. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2595
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